Carry some cash
I recommend carrying some actual cash money. When I do that, a lot of people say, "Why? Everyplace I go takes credit and debit cards." In fact, I know people who brag about spending no cash at all for weeks or months at a time. A no-cash life may be good for bragging points, but I suggest you carry some cash anyway.
I was visiting someone in the hospital last week. Several times I made small cash purchases on her behalf that might not have been so easy to make with a credit or debit card. (I got her a soda out of the machine, for example, and some sugar-free gum at the hospital gift-shop.) There was probably an ATM machine somewhere in the hospital, but I don't know where exactly, and because of the way parking was arranged there, it would have been quite unhandy to have to zip out and go find an ATM elsewhere.
My own history with cash
When I was younger I carried very little cash. I had two reasons for keeping cash-on-hand to a minimum. First, because interest rates were a lot higher, the potential return on an extra $100 in a money market account oughtweighed the hassle of an extra stop or two at the ATM. Second, I didn't have much money--not enough to take a month's spending money out of the bank, if I also had to pay rent out of the same paycheck.
I changed my ways during a visit to Germany. I'd brought a few Deutsche Marks (enough for travel from the airport to the hotel), but most of our travel money was in travelers checks. It turns out, though, that in Germany you can't really use travelers checks at stores or restaurants. They're easy to cash at a bank, but we'd arrived on a Friday after the banks were already closed, so we were looking at no more cash until Monday. (This was a while ago. Nowadays you'd just hit an ATM for local currency.)
Things turned out okay. The hotel cashed one travelers check, which gave us money for our various small purchases, and we used credit cards for the large ones. Once the banks opened, though, we went and cashed a couple hundred dollars worth of marks to carry around.
The thing was, it turned out to be really handy to have plenty of cash on hand. We didn't need to worry if some place took any particular card. We had cash if a traveling companion was short. It was so handy that I continued the practice of carrying a reasonable amount of cash, even after we came home.
Cash for living large (and small)
Times when it's good to have cash:
- Buying something from a person, rather than a business
- When you want to give someone a tip (or a bribe)
- For very small purchases, such as a pack of gum
- Purchases from vending machines
- When you're someplace unfamiliar, such as on a trip
- Anyplace that doesn't take plastic (Two examples: When I lived in Utah the state-run liquor stores only took cash; when I lived in California the places that towed your car away "at owner's expense" only took cash.)
People give various reasons why they don't want to carry cash. Some people claim that they're more likely to spend money if they have cash than if they have to use a card. That seems unlikely to me, but I can get behind any mental trick people use to help themselves be more frugal. Some worry that it will be lost or stolen. I haven't lost my wallet in more than 30 years, but I'm sure it would suck all the more if I had a bunch of money in it when I lost it. (And it would suck plenty to lose the credit cards and ID.)
It's possible to get along fine with little or no cash, especially if you live a circumscribed life (such as on a college campus or campus-like workplace, where you can put everything on a card). But if you live large there are going to be times and places where that doesn't work so well. Money isn't the solution to every problem, and even problems where money is the solution can often be solved with a credit or debit card. But there are some problems out there where the best solution is cash money. When you face one of those problems, it's nice to have some cash.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any bank, card issuer, airline or hotel chain.